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I Don’t Trust You

amelia-cat-by-brownpauAn often heard complaint about an organization’s performance appraisal program is that the employees don’t trust their manager to conduct a fair assessment of performance.  That view is also the common response when asked why a company doesn’t use a PA or even Pay-For-Performance (P4P) program to recognize and reward employees.

Isn’t that a sad state of affairs?  I don’t trust you.  I don’t trust the management of my company.  What does that attitude say about your performance culture, or the state of morale or employee engagement when the workforce has such negative feelings for their leadership?  How many successful organizations out there have an employee workforce that doesn’t trust them?

On the other hand, should you simply throw out the baby with the bath water – stop conducting performance appraisals – and instead dole out general pay adjustments just for showing up for work?  Sort of like an attendance award.  Which essentially rejects the idea that individual employee performance levels do vary, and that variance is worth recognizing and rewarding.  Can you afford to treat “Super Joe” the same as “Joe Average?”

Or instead, if faced with this crisis of confidence should you take the more difficult road and make a serious effort to fix the core problem?  Perhaps you should train your managers in how to properly assess employee performance.  Perhaps you should hold them accountable.

Lack of trust can be an avoidable problem if you’re paying attention.

Where Managers Fail

The list below highlights the common concerns that employees are complaining about; where some managers fail to be objective.  Where they can distort performance ratings, one way or another, by committing judgment errors that are based on bias, sloppiness or simply not caring enough about the process.

  • Halo Effect: Generalizing ratings based on one positive achievement or strength.
  • Horn Effect: Generalizing ratings based on one negative experience or weakness.
  • Recency Effect: Rater emphasis on very recent event(s).
  • First Impressions Effect: Generalizing later ratings based on initial impression
  • Different Than Me: Giving lower ratings to those whose methods, interests, attitudes, etc. differ from yours.
  • Like Me: Giving higher ratings to those whose interests, attitudes, methods, etc. are similar to yours.
  • Central Tendency: Evaluating all ratees as average even when performance varies.
  • Carry-Over Effect: Rating during one rating period influenced by ratings from a different period.

Likely you’ve all seen or heard of these examples.  But when such abuses are left unchallenged by an organization’s leadership (all hail the status quo!) the natural result is that those on the receiving end grow to no longer trust the rater or the rating.  Or the process itself.

Did I say sloppiness?  When managers act as if they can’t be bothered by the performances appraisal process (too busy, better things to do, consider it a painful process, already know the answer, etc.), the resultant impact on your workforce will go beyond the ratings themselves.  How long before Joe Employee says, “They don’t care about me.  Why should I care about them?”

Is It Time To Kick Butt?

Small problems left unresolved will eventually morph into larger problems.  Ignoring a problem that is large enough that it can alienate your workforce, disrupt employee engagement, morale and ultimately productivity, turnover and your performance culture, that is a concern that you need to address – to root out at its core.  Or pay dearly for the consequences.

Managers who cannot/will not conduct proper performance appraisal reviews are not doing their job.  It should be considered as simple as that.  And if they are not performing such a key managerial responsibility then they should be held accountable for that lapse.  Their own performance ratings and subsequent rewards should be negatively impacted.  Repeated offenses should put their jobs at risk.

These people are poisoning your workforce.  That should not be allowed to continue.  But how often do you see a manager penalized for not properly managing their staff?  It does seem sometimes that senior leadership isn’t interested, or certainly not focused on negative employee attitudes and perceptions as a cause of concern.

Employees who don’t trust their management to treat them fairly will never deliver the kind of performance, the kind of drive that will bring the organization success.

I have a prediction for you.  The clamor to throw out PA programs will continue to grow and fester as long as an organization doesn’t address the core problem of delivering objective performance ratings for its employees.  As long as leadership turns a blind eye to how managers assess and rate employee performance those affected employees will continue to resent what they consider a flawed and unfair system.  And how motivated is a resentful employee?

You have to deal with bad managers if wish to retain/regain the trust of your employees.  You leave these bad apples alone at your peril, and the cost can ruin your organization.

“I don’t trust you” is a warning sign that the Wraith of Business Failure is knocking at your door.

Are You In A State Of Denial?

Frog Wisdom, by liberalmind1012Many a time I have consulted with clients who would confidently, and even smugly, brag to me that all was well with their core reward programs.  “Everything is working fine,” they would say.  “We may just need to update a few things.”  Their view is that if anything perhaps only a few mid-course adjustments might be necessary.  The source(s) of their company’s largest single expense, their payroll, are working pretty much as intended.

Not much to look at here.

But in truth there often is, that there’s a mass of program rot lying just beneath the shiny veneer of their brightly colored brochures and positive messaging.  If you’re only looking at surface appearances (think of that traditional iceberg picture) you could be turning a blind eye to a powerful dose of reality. Because over time even the best-conceived reward plans will go off the tracks and cease delivering the type of results that they were intended for. If you ignore them.

How long would you dare driving your car without checking the oil?

Using Wallpaper

It’s been said that you can wallpaper over the cracks in a wall, but that those fissures and imperfections would still remain – just no longer in plain sight.  So who are you kidding, when you paper over faulty reward programs that once upon a time worked well?  When you push that “Let’s do this again” button to once again repeat exactly what you did last year, and the years before?

A few common examples.

  • Pay for performance: This is the most popular kicking boy, the P4P program.  Yes, you may say that you reward for individual performance, but to be effective you should be doing more than going through the procedural motions.
    • What percentage of employees receive a “merit” increase?  Would 90+% raise a flag of entitlement vs. earned reward?
    • What is the quality of those performance appraisal forms?  Or are you simply processing paperwork by checking the box, “Received?”
    • Have managers been trained to conduct proper reviews/interviews? Or are they left to their own devices, supposedly “Doing the best they can?”
  • We provide competitive salaries: We hear this one all the time, to the point that this has become an almost meaningless phrase.
    • Are you talking about your salary ranges or actual pay?  Are you walking the talk, or simply pontificating about what could happen?
    • Is your compa-ratio competitive?  Are you even checking? Do you know the danger signs?
    • Being “competitive” still means that 50% of the marketplace pays more than you. Can’t pat yourself on the back over that, can you?
  • Our incentive plans are pay-at-risk: Do you really cut back on variable payments to management when performance slips or is at least a portion of targeted payments already baked into the books?  I have seen the Finance folks “adjust” corporate results to ensure that key incentive payments weren’t negatively impacted.

Some organizations hold back on base salaries, then tout their incentive program as delivering competitive total pay.  Which of course increases the pressure to deliver something in the form of additive “variable” pay.

  • All employees are treated the same: It sounds good when you read phrases like this on the break room wall, but are non-managers really treated the same as managers when it comes to providing reward payments?  Is your leadership assessed in the same objective fashion, or is there a greater concern that some managers/leaders might quit if their rewards were negatively impacted – by even their performance?

I’ve seen organizations who have felt no compunction about freezing or delaying regular performance reviews and merit increases for the general workforce, while at the same time would always ensure that the management cadre received regular increases.

This is not to say that various reward strategies, even some of those listed above may not be appropriate under certain circumstances.  But don’t kid yourself, or worse, kid your employees. They will know when your messages are in a state of denial when compared to actions taken.

And trust is a very hard thing to regain.

Really Bad Decisions

942217_1015285940, by Dan MantylaWhen speaking before a group I’m often asked what key takeaways or gems of wisdom I have learned during the course of my career.  Like most of you, I’m still at it, learning something new every day, but I have gained a valuable perspective from what I’ve seen and experienced.  I’ve learned that professional wisdom comes to each of us in two ways; 1) what you learn to do (what works), and 2) what mistakes you’ve seen or made (what doesn’t work).

Here’s hoping that your career manages to stay on the straight and narrow with positive role models and valuable experiences, but all too often we learn our most useful lessons from failures, from tactics or decisions that didn’t work.  Or from failed managers whom we’ve worked for, those who made repeating mistakes a personal career choice. Either experience can offer valuable lessons that can shape your career.

Common Goofs

Putting together an all-inclusive list of examples would become an endless affair, given the myriad scenarios, personalities and business circumstances that could be involved.  So instead we’ll try to highlight the big mistakes.  Below are reflections of my personal experiences.

  • General Adjustment vs. Merit:  Granting all employees the same pay raise, instead of varying increases on the basis of performance delivered.  Being easy to administer is rarely an effective strategy.
  • Performance vs. Entitlement:  Rewarding management more generously than other employee segments – simply because they’re management.  Leadership is no more entitled to rewards than any other employee group.
  • Discretionary Assessments: When reviewing employees on a subjective vs. objective basis management discretion can sometimes lead to abuses (favored sons, “halo” effect, or even discrimination).
  • Abuse of FLSA Exemptions:  Avoiding overtime by treating non-exempt employees as if they were exempt.  Managers never tire of trying this tactic, and it can really cost you.
  • Surveys says!:  Using a title and a generic catch-all write-up for matching jobs against “the market.”  It’s the easy way.  Anyone can do it.  There’s nothing to interpret, is there?
  • The Performance Distribution Curve:  Assigning individual assessments of employee performance in a manner set to adhere to a bell-shaped graph.  Nobody likes this tactic, except perhaps lawyers for your employees.
  • Ignoring Internal Equity:  Hiring/promoting employees without consideration of how other like-qualified employees are paid.  There are no secrets, so pleasing one while angering two is a dubious tactic.
  • Title Inflation:  That meaningless “bone” you toss employees whom you can’t otherwise reward.  This tactic will raise fixed costs, but without providing a corresponding benefit to the company.  You will eventually regret this decision.
  • The Absent Safety Valve:  To be successful over time, your program should be able to bend, but not break.  This means that sometimes exceptions have to be made, for good business, compassionate or even political reasons.  Not every circumstance will fit into your mold.

Can you see possible rationalizations for pursuing each of the above?  Justification depends on a litany of possible circumstances, individuals and . . . whatever.  Just have a care that your rationalizations don’t become a pattern of indefensible excuses and that you document.

Really Bad Decisions

Then there are those oops! decisions that over the course of one’s career you continue to regret – wishing you had the time to reboot your thought processes.

  • Hiring a friend/relative:  If you would hesitate to sell them a used car, why would you ever think that hiring them would be a good idea?  Correcting this mistake can be painful.
  • Ignoring Office Politics:  I’m not very good at politics” is a poor response to an important reality of the workplace that all managers need to deal with.  It’s all around us, so to pretend you’re above it all, or otherwise ignore it, is likely going to be counter-productive.
  • Performance is everything:  No, it isn’t.  Not anymore.  In today’s workplace image and exposure have become dominant, to the extent that just doing a good job is no longer enough to ensure career progression or even longevity.
  • I was too busy for networking:  Usually heard from people in transition, from those who failed to connect with colleagues, peers and industry insiders while they were employed.  Build your network when you don’t need it, so it’s there for when you do.

Have I missed anything?  Are there other ill-considered compensation practices that you’ve experienced during your own career?

Let me know.

Can You Take A Punch?

Well, can you?  Can you stand up when the criticism has your name on it? Or are you going to fold up like a cheap suit, make excuses and then backtrack?  I’ve seen both.Day 29 Knockout  by Mike Nelson

You know what I’m talking about.  The day will come when the compensation decisions/recommendations are yours to make.  When you’re no longer sitting second chair but instead have to make the calls yourself.  When your own neck is sticking out there.

Likely you have heard the drumbeat criticisms:

  • You don’t know my job
  • Who died and made you king for a day?
  • Where did you get your numbers?  They’re wrong.
  • What do you even know our business?
  • You’re being unrealistic
  • You’ve matched against the wrong jobs
  • You’re just spouting the company line
  • All you care about is your precious budget
  • Don’t you realize that you’re hurting real people here?

Do you want me to go on?  I could, of course, but you get the drift.  Likely you can add your own set of zingers that have been tossed your way.  They can come from all sides but are the most telling when they’re coming from above you.

Where Does This Come From?

Unless you’re a particularly loathsome person this criticism of your work is typically not meant to be personal, though I admit that it usually stings in the same fashion anyway.  The root cause is that someone on the receiving end of your position (your analysis, judgment, recommendation, etc.) didn’t get what they wanted.  So they’re upset and aggrieved, which puts you,  the source of their anger, in the cross hairs.  If they can move you then they can get their way.  So, they push.

Logically you can probably see that much of the criticism is emotional, often unreasonable and may not even have the best interests of the organization in mind.  Critics often do not look past their immediate desires, never mind take the time to consider the possibility of unintended consequences.  But still, these disdainful comments, if used often enough can potentially damage your reputation, your credibility and your image within your organization.

That’s why you shrug off these comments at your peril.

What Are You Gonna Do?

It’s easy to say, “Stand your ground as a professional and do the right thing.” But this isn’t a Disney movie with a guaranteed happy ending.  You can get hurt professionally by such criticism, so an arrogant “who cares?” is likely not going to help you – and can, in fact, make things worse.

Here are a couple of thoughts for you to consider, presuming that you’re not going to surrender and transform yourself into a “Yes person” compensation administrator.

  • Be approachable: You should strive to develop a reputation as someone who will listen, who complainants can talk to.  This doesn’t mean that you have to change course, but that you are willing to let those with a criticism have their say.
  • Be flexible: Be willing to consider that there may be alternative tactics to reach the same goal that your critics desire.  So remain open to suggestions, keep an open mind about possibilities and work with your critics to move in the same direction – if at all possible.
  • Explain yourself: Often times your critics just don’t understand the processes you must go through to reach a conclusion, so tell them.  Make sure that you explain the principles involved (including ramifications) and why you took the stand you did.  That transparency will usually take some of the air out of their complaint balloon.
  • Understand the other side:  Make sure that you actively listen, so that you understand where the critic is coming from; know their perspective.  Knowing an opposing viewpoint might not change anything in your mind, but you’ll get points for having them understand that you do “get it.”
  • Do your job: You can’t be a friend to everyone, you can’t (or shouldn’t) be the practitioner who can’t say no.  Not if you intend to do the job that you’re being paid for.  There are limits to how much you can placate someone who didn’t get their way.

And while you’re at it, work on hardening your skin.  Because you’ve chosen a career where it’s easy to be criticized.

You just need to be able to take a punch.

Bob’s Your Uncle

Cat-reading-glasses-with-paper, by Floho67I once lived in England for five years as an expatriate for my company, and during that time my HR team took great pleasure in confusing me with English words that held little meaning for an American.  Often times I could even repeat the phrase back to them, yet still didn’t understand what the terms meant.

As the Brits often told me, we speak the same language, but we don’t.  My colleagues loved to “take the mick out of me” (poke innocent fun).

One example that stuck with me over time is “Bob’s your uncle.”  Imagine the first time I heard that phrase.   What again?

Within the UK it’s a common phrase that means “And there you go” or “Everything’s fine now.”  But the words just didn’t make sense to me.  But like so many colloquialisms out there, finding the root cause going back decades or more proved a challenge.  It took me almost two years to find someone who could explain where the term originated (we didn’t have Google back then).

Easy Peasy

Two hundred or so years ago there was a high-ranking Member of the English Parliament (Robert, Lord Salisbury) who held great sway (political influence) across the British Empire.  This was a powerful man, and one who believed in nepotism and political cronyism, so it was not unusual for even his distant relations to find themselves gifted with important government positions.

Such favored office holders with familial connections held positions of power, influence and easy living.  Over time the phrase was born, that everything would be easy peasy (fine and dandy) just as long as “Bob’s your uncle.”

And That Applies How?

Which got me to thinking about a message I had received a few weeks back from a recent graduate, one who wanted to make a career in HR, and specifically compensation.  This inexperienced fellow posed a basic query, one often asked by those just beginning their careers.  “How can I achieve success in my chosen profession (Compensation)?”   He wondered whether there was a blueprint, a map, or a guide of sorts to keep him on the straight and narrow.  He had hoped to find a “Compensation for Dummies” book from Amazon.

Of course, there are no rules, no instruction manuals or pointed arrows on the road, each guaranteed to take you by the hand and show the way to career success.  Instead, the experiences of those who went before you are varied and distinct in so many ways, usually a compilation of diverse career choices, working for particular supervisors who influenced for good or ill, differing type and operating style of employers, and of course the series of unanticipated head knocks (lessons learned from mistakes) that one gains over the length of a career.

What happened to me may not happen to you, I thought.   There is no, “Read this and you’ll be fine.”

So I condensed my experiences, career preferences, personal work philosophy, and gut instincts into a set of generic principles that could (or should) provide a solid platform of suggestions for anyone interested in career success, whatever the chosen profession.

Below is the essence of my response to that recent graduate, reflecting my thoughts for how a compensation practitioner can become a success.  It’s not a complete list, the specific applications can sway in the wind along with the reality of personal circumstances, but the concepts are broad enough for individual interpretation.

  • Understand your organization:  You need to know at least the basics of the business operations where you work.  What are your products/services and what advantages do they offer a customer or community?   What is the company’s reputation, and why? Don’t remain stuck in your office/cubicle, but get out there and learn about what makes the business tick.
  • Understand the compelling facts:  What is the business environment that your organization operates in, and how competitive is your reward program?  What story does the compensation metrics of your organization tell you?   What issues do you face with payroll, turnover, morale, engagement, etc?  Sadly though, all too many practitioners start and stop here.
  • Understand your management: Who are these people who run the business and what are their management biases?  Learn the perspectives that each of them brings toward making HR and compensation decisions.  Know these leaders and take every opportunity to ensure that they know you.
  • Understand your goals: If you don’t know where you’re going, or which pathway you’re on, then any road will do. So learn what defines success at your organization and strive to support efforts in that direction.  Make sure that your own objectives are integrated into the larger picture of overall success.
  • Mix, stir and bake at 350 degrees until done!  Take all of the knowledge gained from the above, combine it with your own skill sets and experience, a little political deftness and then work diligently at making a difference,  every day.

And there you are!  Follow these suggestions in pursuing your chosen career and everything will be fine.

Bob’s your uncle.

Shooting The Messenger

I Don't Know, by Lourdes NightingaleNobody likes to hand out bad news, especially face-to-face.  Not only is it depressing and possibly demoralizing, but you have to look people in the eye when they get punched in the proverbial gut.  This awful experience is personally troubling if you’re the one holding the unpopular or unwanted news and if your senior leadership are the ones whose day you’re going to ruin.


In days of yore (a long time ago) the messengers sent between feudal kingdoms were considered inviolate.  As these personal representatives were the chosen form of communication back then, the thought was that, if you tortured or killed the fellow because you didn’t like what they had to say, then any return messenger you ultimately sent would almost certainly face the same treatment.

But that logical conclusion didn’t erase the concern felt by medieval couriers standing in hostile territory as they recited words certain to anger powerful warlords.

Not an assignment to be envied, for sure.

Less Dramatic Today, But . . . .

Fortunately, the chances of being drawn and quartered for delivering an unwanted message has diminished over time.  It almost never happens anymore.  But that comforting thought hasn’t completely erased the fear element for those standing before a disheartened and possible angry senior manager.

While a torturous dismemberment or death sentence may be off the table as an option in today’s business world, it’s still a risky business being the bearer of bad news to senior leaders. There’s the blame game to consider, the taint of forever being associated with news they didn’t want to hear, a stinging blow to your professional credibility, and perhaps worst, a career-damaging stigma that could weaken important relationships and provide you with all too much negative exposure.

In the world of office politics being the messenger harboring bad or unwanted news is still a position most would want to avoid – if at all possible.

Big Boy/Girl Pants

However, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.  You may not have created a recessionary economy, a highly competitive industry, government regulations that increase fixed costs, a difficult organized labor environment, or a host of other external factors that are considered bad news to senior leadership.  It may not be your fault that the payroll is bloated, that turnover is spiking, that good talent is increasingly hard to find, and that your reward programs are not effective (enough).  But you may still find yourself to be the one standing there, darkening senior management’s day with a bitter pill of uncomfortable reality.

No one ever said that your job would be a bed of roses, did they?  No one said that there wouldn’t be a downside to that promotional increase and nice new title you received, did they?

So man up (or similar gender neutral phraseology) and when the time occurs (and it will, eventually) face the music.  Don’t pass the deed off to subordinates.  Don’t mumble the words.  Don’t blame someone (anyone) else.  Don’t  try to confuse the message with elaborate language, double speak or uncommon terminology.  Just cut to the chase and say what needs to be said with unvarnished directness.

And you know what?  You might get a few points out of the experience after all.  Following an immediate negative response from your audience, cooler minds may eventually prevail.  Honesty and direct talk are still virtues in most quarters, as is taking responsibility when the buck stops with you.

If there are opportunities to right a wrong, to solve a problem or to redirect efforts down a better strategic pathway, speak up.  Don’t just drop the “bomb” and leave.  Here might be your best chance to be seen as a problem solver, a creative thinker, a guide to show the way out of the forest.

Take the opportunity to make lemonade from the lemons in your hand.

With any luck, they won’t shoot the messenger.

Because I Said So

Telling a story, by Marina del CastellDo you remember hearing this phrase when you were a kid?  I sure do.  That sharp retort would have come from one of my parents, probably after they’d had just about enough of me asking “Why?” to everything they said or asked me to do.

If you recall, that outburst never helped the situation though, did it?  Probably because it was shouted out of frustration, not education.  My parents wanted me to pay attention to them and to do what I’m told.

It Still Doesn’t Work

Fast forward to the present day.  Have you ever tried to use that phrase at work?  Have you ever found yourself so tired of doubters questioning your every step, your recommendations or simply your way of performing your job – to the point that you just wanted to scream at them, “Just do what I ask,” “I know what I’m talking about,” or my favorite, “Just trust me about this.”

Of course, that sort of explosive behavior is not a career enhancing practice when dealing with colleagues, never mind those higher up the food chain.  In fact, it might have the opposite effect as you find yourself burning bridges and alienating those you can’t afford to upset.

What is usually the root cause of the frustration is that you as the local compensation “expert” are trying to gain acceptance (and implementation) of ideas, processes or simply policy/procedure decisions that those whose support you need are not comfortable with.  They could be ignorant of the compensation rationale, not understand the cost/employee morale implications, feel that your approach is more complicated than they would like, or it’s simply an action or intent that goes against their personal biases.  And when the bosses aren’t comfortable, they dig in their heels.

Walk Before You Run

You have to teach these guys.  In effect, they need your help.  But it shouldn’t be, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.”

You should take the time to hold their hand while you explain what it is that you want to do and why.  You have to show them the problem you mean to solve, and exactly why it’s a problem.  Your audience likely doesn’t understand the field of Compensation, and may even have a bit of distrust with all those numbers.  So you need to make an effort to get them over to your side.

Not everyone can do this.  Compensation practitioners are typically content experts, and not necessarily comfortable with public speaking or teaching others.  The competency of persuasiveness and influencing is a skill in itself, and one that you need to practice at constantly, no matter your current level of comfort.  Because knowing you’re right about something as important as managing the cost and implications of employee pay will never be enough.  You have to be able to convince colleagues and senior management that you know what you’re talking about.  That you know how to get things done.  That they can have confidence in you.  Gaining that conviction from leadership is always a challenge, no matter how “expert” you are at the technical side of your chosen profession.

As any teacher will tell you, your “students” will have to walk before they can run.  They will have to be brought along, slowly in some cases, by careful explanations of the principles involved, how they impact the organization, and how a proper application of your recommendations can and will bring success.

Remember that you have to communicate, communicate, communicate.  Use illustrations and common examples, along with a few pictures (charts and graph) to help educate those who have the power to approve or block your initiatives.  And do this, over time, by face-to-face interactions, not via impersonal (and often boring) memorandum.

In my view, a leadership team who understands the role and impact of the Compensation function can be your friend.  But you have to nurture that friendship.  You have to work to get them on your side.

You can’t tell them what to do.  That tactic usually works in the opposite direction.

One Day At A Time

Abandoned cats, by Stefan TellCan I have a show of hands?  How many of you have ever attended a compensation conference or seminar where the speaker inspired you?  Where you were filled with ideas to transform your reward programs?

Most of you, right?

Now, how many of you actually managed to keep the light of inspiration burning bright one week after returning to work?  How about for two weeks?

Ok, not many hands still raised.

Reality Sets In

The problem we face is that there’s often a world of difference between the ideas inspired by a conference speaker and the realities of life where you work.  Somehow what you hear often doesn’t relate to the practical world you live in.

So what usually happens when you return to work gung ho to transform your workplace?

  • You find that no one picked up the ball while you were away.  So you’re immediately tossed into a maelstrom of catch-up work, putting out fires and in general just trying to get projects and activities back onto an even keel.
  • The boss doesn’t want to hear about the great ideas you brought back with you.  There’s work to be done and you’ve been gone too long already.  Or perhaps the perception was that the seminar was a boondoggle get-away and the boss doesn’t take the subject matter seriously.
  • You’re reminded that the work culture is more interested in maintaining its self-interest and status quo, and as a result tends to stifle new ideas.  You can’t find a sponsor to support your initiatives.
  • Within a few weeks, you start to think of that conference as more of a vacation with good memories than a catalyst for action.  The daunting reality of what it would take to initiate real change has dampened your enthusiasm to a whisper of what it had been.  Dust starts to gather on the participant binder.

Meanwhile the conference speakers you enjoyed so much have moved on to motivate, excite and invigorate the next batch of attendees – and the cycle of life goes on.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One Day At A Time

Let’s presume that your position on the organizational ladder is not at the top, that you cannot effect change simply by dictum: “Make it so!”   What you’re likely left with as a strategy then, is to focus on incremental change.  Get that first down or punch out a single hit, vs. throwing for the end zone or swinging for the bleachers.

Some practical suggestions for you to consider:

  • Take little steps:  If you know the direction you want to take (changes in policies, procedures, behaviors, whatever) start moving in that direction in small ways vs. abruptly shaking things up with big ideas.  As examples you could start collecting data (metrics), revise forms to be more user-friendly, increase procedures to create more transparencies;  the list of minor targeted improvements can be endless.
  • Educate decision-makers:  Get the decision-makers on your side by talking to them, explaining your ideas, starting with the basics.  Don’t assume that they understand the foundations of your profession.  Leadership needs to be brought beyond sound bites and talking points to an understanding of compensation issues that affect the organization.
  • Develop your own strategy: Whatever it is you wish to accomplish, plan out the steps you’ll need to get there; Who needs to be on board as supporters, what (and who) are the barriers to success, what has been tried before, what are the likely challenges?
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate:  Don’t try to recommend changes from the safety and anonymity of your office or cubicle. Get out there and interact with clients, sponsors and even resistors.  Whether it’s talking to groups, preparing white papers on relevant topics, or simply exposing the dark corners of bad practices/behaviors, you need to focus on your message and repeat it, over and over again.
  • Watch for glitches:  They are everywhere, those mistakes, unintentional consequences, and passive resistors just lying in wait.  So be ready.  No plan is perfect, no one is mistake-proof.  Ask yourself, what can go wrong?  Where should I expect complaints?   Then prepare your response in advance.

Becoming a catalyst for change when you can’t wave a magic wand takes time, takes patience, and takes a large dose of discipline.  Anticipate that there will be setbacks and disappointments.  Learn from them and carry on.

Just take one day at a time.

Then maybe then next year you can share your own experiences at one of those conferences.  You’ll have something valuable to contribute.

Beware The Ides Of March

Merry Ides of March, by Lany WentzelDo you remember the storyline from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  Or at least the good part, when the Senators surrounded him and commenced with the assassination?  “Et tu, Brute?” is one of the most famous lines of all the bard’s illustrious plays (“You Too, Brutus?”).

Now let me test your memory a bit further.  Do you recall the warning a soothsayer had sent to Caesar the morning of that fateful day, just as he was departing for the Roman Senate?  “Beware the Ides of March” was the simple message.  That day was the Ides (15th) and the fortune teller had reached out with Shakespeare’s premonition.

It was a verbal red flag that was ignored, to Caesar’s ultimate ruin.

Your Own Warning

We’re now approaching that same fateful date in the calendar again, and yes, there’s another warning flag being waved, but this time for you.  Because on or about the Ides of March you will have probably wrapped up your reward program administration efforts for last year, 2016.  The annual incentive checks likely have been distributed, merit increases have been granted, and whatever changes took place in your salary structure and merit spend have been communicated and implemented.

With luck you have already launched your 2017 incentive programs and have the business and employee objectives (mostly) completed.

Whew.  Time for a break?

Not so fast.

In the annual Compensation calendar there is usually a period of approximately six months (mid-March to mid-September) when your efforts are your own, not on automatic pilot.  When you’re not committed to a series of annual projects to close out the old year and welcome in the new one.  So right about now you’ve completed wrapping up 2016, started 2017 but haven’t yet had to start the planning cycle for the year to come.

You’re now looking at a period of (relative) quiet that you can use to your advantage if you grasp for it.  Here is the time to analyze, research, recommend and just kick the tires on new thinking, potential new/revised programs and alternative processes that could provide improvements to your reward programs.  ROI gains and payroll cost savings could be had.  And if you have your own annual objectives to deal with, now would be the time to focus your efforts.

But that’s if you take the time to focus.  Because your window of opportunity will close within six months, which is all too soon in most cases.  And that clock has already started ticking down.

Better get to it.

Fritter Away at Your Peril

Chances are reasonable that you will have certain tasks/projects to complete this year.  And probably not a lot of time to get things done without scrambling.  Perhaps you need to rethink your sales incentive scheme, or your metrics dashboard has a red light or two flashing.  You could be facing compliance issues or other friction points in your reward programs that you’ve put off addressing for too long already.

But I hope that you won’t be like Caesar and ignore the cautionary flags being waved at you.  Today they’re likely a yellow alert, just to get your attention.  By the time they become a flashing red in the middle of vacation season it may be too late to accomplish what you intended/was expected of you.  Or at least in a quality manner.

Procrastination and delay will not be your friends, so please make the most of the time you have before those automatic pilot projects start up again in September (or even earlier).

No one likes to play catch-up, especially with important projects, and the frantic efforts that would be involved (all-hands-on-deck strategy) rarely work out well, for you or the organization.

So consider me your own personal soothsayer and listen to the words being whispered in your ear.

Remember the Ides of March!

What Does This Mean?



Many of us probably have an image in our heads, locked in from childhood memories, that of a dog chasing a car down a neighborhood street.  The dog sprints down the road, barking wildly and trying desperately to catch the moving car.  Mostly to no avail because, let’s face it, there’s no speed contest here.

But have you ever seen a time when that chased car suddenly comes to a stop (traffic light, stop sign, etc.) and then watch when the pursuing dog finally catches up?  It’s hilarious, as the canine seems suddenly befuddled by the change in circumstances.   It just stands there in the street, panting from the exertion, not quite knowing what it should do now.

Which makes his exercise a bit pointless, doesn’t it?

The Befuddled Manager

In a sense, the same thing can happen at work, in situations when managers are given a market analysis figure from the Compensation folks.  These HR specialists have been asked the question – what is this job worth?  What is the competitive, or “going rate” out there?

Suddenly they are given a figure.

Now I have a new picture in my head, one that I see happening all too often in the workplace.  Picture an employee hustling down the hallway, a white paper in hand, gleefully shouting (somewhat like Paul Revere), “I have the number.”

As in, this is what we should pay.  This is what we should do

But do they have the right number?  So often I see situations where the explanation or rationalization of that figure is lost on the manager.  All they seem to be able to see is – they have a number.  Whew.  Job done.

Have they considered that the figure in their hand may not have the precision they assume?  Likely not.

  • Maybe only a limited number of companies participated in the survey(s)compensation analysis,
  • Just where exactly did the figure come from?
  • Is the job match 100%, or perhaps a lower figure – or even guesstimate?
  • The data is national or regional, which may be different than our local needs
  • Does the figure reflect our industry?  Does it reflect our size (revenue, operating budget, etc.)?

Perhaps that fellow running down the hallway should turn around and get some of these questions answered first – before sticking his head out with senior management.

But What Does It Mean?

In a sense, getting the numbers, whatever their quality,  is only the beginning.  Now what to do?  I am asked that question a great deal.  Now that management has the number(s), what do they mean?  What should/could be done?

What do I do now?

This is where compensation analysis and compensation management/consulting tend to blur their respective roles.

The analyst should have the answers to the questions we just posed and should make it their responsibility to ensure that the internal client hears them as well.  At that point, of course, the analysis is complete and perhaps we’re back to the hallway.

It’s then that the higher (softer) role of Compensation kicks in, getting that client to realize the implications of those figures and start to sort out a strategy that responds to the new analysis.

If you find that you’re paying certain key employees 20% below market rates, the analyst will tell you that.  But now you need to consider how to deal with potential next steps.

  • A 20% increase for those affected (general increase?).
  • An ad hoc performance review that portions out increases based on merit.
  • A review of internal equity to see who else might be impacted by a flurry of sudden pay increases.
  • Crafting an appropriate message that remains positive while not admitting you’re been underpaying these employees for years.

So to all you compensation analysts out there; here is an opportunity to add value and get yourself some helpful exposure. Go beyond the simple explanation of, “Here is the number you asked for” and consider what this new information means to the client.  Whether other questions are raised, whether possible responses could affect other employees, or whether solving one problem can create two new issues.

Because sometimes your client won’t know enough to ask what your answer really means, as they’re already anxious to start their rush down the hallway.